Keeping an ancestral altar is an important part of my spiritual path as a Celtic Witch, but you don’t need to be a witch to benefit from keeping an ancestral altar. The purpose of an ancestral altar isn’t to worship the ancestors, but to honor them as the ones who came before us and gave us life, and to remember them. We are the trees and the ancestors are the roots from which we gain nourishment. Returning to our roots is important, especially for those living in America who have been long divorced from their original lands where their people dwelt.
So many walk around today entirely oblivious to to the protection they receive from their ancestors and the guidance available to them. So many don’t even think to ask for the help of their ancestral allies, though these allies will do much to remove obstacles and provide guidance and protection. Our ancestors include not only our blood lineage, but our friends and animal companions who become part of our ancestral court when they are born into the Otherworld. The Otherworld exists within our world as an unseen layer, as a realm which can be accessed from certain natural locations. Our ancestors are living their lives there until they die there and are born again to us here. This veil between our world and the Otherworld has thinning moments at certain times of day and certain times of the year in which they naturally cross over and interact. They may come when you ask outside of these times, as well.
In my path, the Celtic gods and goddesses are the original ancestors. Their memories have been kept alive despite the spread of Christianity by their assimilation into Christianity as either saints or demons. To find the ancestor, know the saints, and know the original legends of the gods. When the religion of the cross took precedence over the religion of the circle, my original ancestors were driven into the hills. They are often referred to now as faery folk, or the sidhe, which is another way some of them are remembered, though not necessarily by individual name and not according to their original power.
An ancestral altar in the Celtic fashion can be simple or elaborate, but above all, it should be beautiful.You are encouraged to be creative, as this is a lineage of artists and bards. It could be a whole table, or it could be a shelf, or even a window sill. Keep at least one candle on the altar to be lit every day (I use tealights for this) and a glass of water as a blessed offering. You can keep photos of your ancestors on the altar, just don’t include any photos of the living on the altar. You can keep other items that belonged to ancestors on the altar as well. If you don’t have photos or personal items that belonged to family members, use items that make you feel connected to your lineage and to the earth. Special stones, for example, or a pot of earth. Keeping items that symbolize the natural elements is an important part of the Celtic altar, as the elements integral to the Path. You could put a feather on your altar to represent air, or a bird statue, or incense.
When you’re done setting up your altar, whether its just a candle and a glass of water or more, burn rosemary incense to consecrate the space and then invite all your ancestors who come in love and peace to dwell and receive their honors. You don’t have to invite every ancestor, especially ones whose energy you don’t want affecting your life. I have an abusive ancestor that I don’t invite to the altar. As in physical life, so in spiritual life it is important to have boundaries.
Leave food offerings as often as feels right to feed the spirits of your ancestors. The spirits take nourishment from the spirit of the food. It doesn’t have to be some elaborate meal, just something you know your ancestors would like, or even some things that you like if you don’t know your ancestors. I often leave mini donuts on mine.
Don’t place iron on your Celtic ancestral altar because it is offensive to the faery folk and may anger them and you definitely don’t want to piss off the faeries. Real silver is acceptable, but be warned, it may disappear.
To get to know your ancestors if you have no real knowledge of them, the first place to begin is in meditation. If you need, you can schedule a spiritual guidance session with me as a mediator and I can divine the best way for you to honor and grow your relationship with your ancestors (if they are of Celtic and Norse lineage).